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Super-Hardy Damara Sheep

Fat Tails, Leaner, Tastier Meat

By Nathan Griffith

A few years ago Helmut Lang began importing Damara sheep genetics into Canada. Having kept and studied over 1,000 of them, and compared them with several other breeds of sheep on his ranch in British Columbia, he’s a wellspring of information on all aspects of Damara sheep in North America.

What Is A Damara Sheep?

The Damara (Mr. Lang pronounces it da-ma-RA) sheep is said to have originated in ancient South Angola and Northern Namibia, Atlantic African countries of grasslands and high desert just north of South Africa, and west of Botswana. Namibia has about the same population as the state of Nebraska, but is about 3 1/2 times as large, in actual square miles. Southern Angola too, is a dry, dusty high plateau region.

Until about the third or fourth century A.D., there was no known herding of domesticated animals in the region. The ancient San culture in times before that, in what is now Namibia, was a hunter-gatherer society completely dependent on indigenous wild game for their livelihood. During the fourth century, other tribes of Hamitic (and even some Semitic) descent had migrated into nearby areas of southern Africa, bringing with them a type of sheep-large and wool-less, most likely (says Mr. Lang, citing ancient drawings and paintings of the sheep, some as old as 6,000 years) having a long, but only moderately fat tail as is seen in today’s Angolan Red sheep-that had probably originated centuries before, in Egypt and the Middle East. The Damara is descended principally from these, probably with little or no foreign admixture.

The Damara breed is a large, meaty “hair” sheep whose fat is stored mostly in the tail, unlike European breeds, whose fat is distributed more or less throughout the carcass. Because the fat tail is considered a delicacy in Africa, many races within this breed have very fat tails. More than just a breed, Damaras almost seem to form their own class of sheep.

Towards northern Angola and Tanzania a red variety of this sheep-with the moderately fat tail-predominates, which is very resistant to internal parasites. Overall, Damaras are the hardiest of all the “South African” sheep breeds, withstanding extremes of weather and fodder, and yet remaining prolific.

Fat Tails Make Lean Meat?

A principal reason for the Damara’s great hardiness is its fat tail-not to be confused with the fat rump of a few other African and Asian breeds.

Again, instead of storing their fat throughout the carcass like the European breeds, Damara sheep store the majority of their fat in the tail. This helps dissipate extreme heat in the summer, and also it serves as a storehouse of energy for times when food isn’t available. At first glance, some varieties of Damara have tails so large that they appear to be a fifth leg! Mr. Lang has worked for years to breed away from this.

Damaras - the fat-tailed variety.
Damaras – the fat-tailed variety.

He is not shy about saying that the fat tail trait is not always good: there is very little demand for these fat tails among people of European descent. Also, according to Mr. Lang, the fatter the tail, the less prolific they are at breeding. Those with the fattest tails have proven to be quite unproductive. Moreover, the fat tail, being unfamiliar to U.S. lamb packing companies, is apt to be discounted by conventional, already low-paying outlets, such as auctions and traveling buyers.

To the contrary though, strains of Damara sheep whose tails are just a little fat always nick (conceive) on the first breeding, get their lambs up and running under the harshest of conditions, and the lambs grow quite well, as the tail releases its store of vitality into the bloodstream, and in turn, into the milk. This is why Helmut Lang has been selecting bloodlines from within his flocks that display only moderately fat tails. Another benefit of the fat tail is the fact that Damaras wag their tails when all is well. Most of us have seen occasional adult sheep that wag their tails as a signal that all is well. Once they get to know you, if you speak to them, practically all Damaras respond by wagging their tails.

With their great store of energy during times of dearth, Damaras are being much less affected by the 4-year drought now playing havoc with Australian sheep production than even the tough little Merino-which has been conditioned to that climate for hundreds of years now!

The Damara sheep’s fat tail has two other potential benefits: It doesn’t need to be docked, and it reduces a lot of the butcher’s fat-trimming labor. That is, because the majority of the fat in the Damara’s carcass is stored in the tail, there is relatively little fat to trim from chops, roasts, etc. Just lop off the tail, and it’s gone.

Then again, certain ethnic groups enjoy fat tails as a delicacy, and little or no U.S. flockmasters are currently serving this definite American market.

Other Benefits

Of course, in appearance, the Damara, with its fat tail and lack of wool, is quite strange to most American flockmasters. With wool becoming more costly to shear than the value of the fleece to the usual sub-wholesale buyers, and many good rangelands having been closed off to traditional uses by hostile officials, certain other attributes may soon give the Damara an important place in the great American West. Very briefly listed, these attributes include the following:

First, their flocking instinct is perhaps the most powerful of any breed.

Second, they actually attack marauding predators, wild and domestic.

Third, they thrive on some of the worst, most pathetic vegetation one could imagine, growing vigorously on forage that would starve most other livestock.

Fourth, their leather has been scientifically shown to be stronger than leather produced by other sheep breeds.

Fifth, they withstand both cold and heat more successfully than other breeds, consistently lambing successfully on Mr. Lang’s operation in the Monanshee Mountains of British Columbia, even outdoors, in the snow, at temperatures below zero.

Sixth, their meat is low in fat and cholesterol, while their milking ability is quite high.

Seventh, though they’re not noted for high twinning rates, they have an absolute minimum of death losses due to parasites, cold, predators, or disease. (Mr. Lang points out that the Damara’s strong resistance to internal parasites seems to be lessened when the lambs are raised in nice clean barns, without early exposure to wormy pastures. If turned onto infected grass after being raised in worm-free barns and lots, it takes a while for their resistance to build up.)

Eighth, the ewes have very strong maternal instincts, even to the point of helping lambs to rise to drink their colostrum.

And finally, their meat is widely well-liked, with buyers of all backgrounds willing to pay a premium after having tasted Damara lamb meat, and especially that grown in the more arid regions, such as the American West.

Mr. Lang points out that it’s only a matter of time-with the North American Free Trade Agreement’s (NAFTA’s) effects continuing to grow-before the Mexican sheep industry begins to add to the woes of America’s great range bands, their low-cost labor and range driving sheep prices downward. Since Damara is already adapted to the rigors of range conditions, and its meat flavor is milder than either Mexican or Merino-based breeds, American sheep ranch operators may save money, increase retail consumption of lamb products, and have a better product if they begin using Damara sires in at least some of their bands.

Preliminary tests show Damara first-cross (F1) lambs make remarkable improvements in hardiness, flocking ability and meat flavor in the common range breeds. Second crosses (F2) need no shearing, because they shed what little wool they grow annually. With today’s low wool prices, and gloomy forecasts for the future, this alone may save costs on shearing, grading, packing and transport.

Damara popularity is growing in Australia and other wool producing nations. If even a modest percentage of such a world commodity as wool were to be removed from the market, the prices should tend to adjust upward for the remainder. With Damara now becoming available, ranchers with more than one band of sheep might well consider converting one or more of those bands into meat-only units. In the end, those flocks that converted to Damara could well wind up helping the wool-growing sheep operations to survive-by allowing more meat whose flavor is widely-preferred to enter the market, by using types of range that other sheep can’t survive on, and by a rise in wool prices due to dropping supplies.

Mr. Lang has graciously allowed us to use his research materials in order to present a set of future articles on the Damara breed, together with the potential windfall this “new” old breed may present to the North American sheep gene pool. For more information on how to use Damara sheep as a primary breed, or as a sire for your current breeding program , or as an additional breed to add variety to your seedstock operation, write or E-mail him at: Helmut Lang, RR 2 Mabel Lake Road 2041, Lumby, BC, V0E 2G0 or E-mail: hlang@junction.net

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